Literature and Chemistry: Elective Affinities

Literature and Science conference (2011)
The poster for the 27-28 October 2011 Literature and Chemistry: Elective Affinities literature chemistry conference, themed around German polymath Johann Goethe’s 1809 physical chemistry novella Elective Affinities (see: Goethe timeline). [1]
In conferences, Literature and Chemistry: Elective Affinities was a 27-28 October 2011 literature chemistry conference that took place at the University of Bergen, centered thematically on German polymath Johann Goethe’s 1809 physical chemistry novella Elective Affinities; and to a certain extent some of the works of Italian chemist turned writer Primo Levi.

The poster to the conference is shown adjacent, depicting (right) a chemical reaction occurring a beaker and (left) some type of alchemical vessel, with the alchemical marriage (see: Chemical Wedding) symbol on the vase; such as is shown on British artist Wolfe von Lenkiewicz famous 2011 oil on canvas "Elective Affinities" painting.

The three main presenters of relevance at this conference seem to have been:

Frode Pedersen | “Demonic Affinities: On Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften

Abstract: “Goethe’s usage of the term ‘elective affinity’, culled from Bergman’s 1775 De Attractionibus Electivis (German translation, 1785), referred to the tendency of certain chemical species to form pairs. When extended to the sphere of interpersonal relationships, as is done in Goethe’s novel, this has implications for the view on the human as such. If persons behave like chemical species, their behavior must to some extent be pre-determined, with no room for free will. Goethe’s thinking on these matters must be viewed in relation to Schelling’s philosophy of nature, in which the sphere of nature and the sphere of human consciousness are seen as continuous.”

This seems to have been an interesting presentation.

Takaoki Matsui | “From Lavoisier to Dalton and Davy: Towards the Complete Decipherment of Goethe’s Elective Affinities

Abstract: “Goethe composed Elective Affinities as a satire on prominent scientists such as Newton, James Watt, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Young, Marie Lavoisier and Count Rumford. Disguised as supporting characters, they experiment with the so-called four elements – which are represented by the four protagonists – and bring them to death and separation (decomposition). The relationship of the protagonists symbolizes not only the law of chemical affinities but also theories of astrophysics. The events in their estate suggest how the correspondence of macro- and microcosm is transformed: The alchemical view of nature and human life was destroyed both by new discoveries in astronomy and by physiological experiments of chemists and physicians.”

This presentation seems to have been complete distorted fiction, as none of this occurs in Goethe's mind, nor his "best book" novella—it almost seems to be a remade fiction upon the original semi-autobiographical physical chemistry based fiction, something akin to Tom Stoppard’s 1993 Arcadia remake. ; the entire argument here seems seems to be a nearly made up fantasy of the Matsui, from who knows where? Beyond this, it is well known that the one field Goethe never touched was astrophysics.

Henrik Johnsson | “August Strindberg and the Chemical Language of Human Relations”

Abstract: August Strindberg (1849-1912) exhibits a lifelong interest in the natural sciences. In the 1890s he abandons literature completely and instead tries to start a new career as a chemist. His attempts at making gold while living in Paris are indicative of a world-view inspired by Ernst Haeckel's monism, and the monistic assumption that all matter is interrelated continues to support Strindberg's perception of the natural world long after he has abandoned chemistry and returned to writing fiction. The most notable imprint left by his scientific interests on his literary texts is a metaphorical language, rooted in both chemistry and an older tradition of alchemy, which is used to describe human relations. Lovers are described as having merged and become compounded individuals, active minds are seen as magnetic batteries, the individual facing a religious crisis has his soul transmuted into "gold", the creations of an author are termed homunculi. These and other examples illustrate how Strindberg incorporates the natural sciences into his literary style and draws inspiration from chemistry and related disciplines when describing how humans interact. In my paper I will elucidate the relationship between Strindberg's scientific interests and his attempts at becoming a bona fide chemist, and examine how he uses a "chemical language" to express the unique qualities of human relationships and the human condition.”

This seems as though it might have been an interesting presentation to listen to.

Of curiosity, on 17 Aug 2011, American electrochemical engineer Libb Thims found about the conference, via Internet searching, and quickly dispatched off an email to conference organizers Randi Koppen, Margareth Hagen, and Margery Skagen that he would like to present and participate at the conference, but shortly thereafter was informed by Koppen that:

“The deadline for paper proposals is now past, and with the number of proposals received already significantly exceeding the maximum number of participants, we regret that we will not be able to accept any further proposals.”

The irony of the situation indeed! The only thing more ironic would have been if Goethe himself would have come forward in time and been turned down as a presenter to this conference on his greatest work—Thims currently being the world’s leading and greatest expositor of Goethe’s self-defined greatest theory (see: Goethe timeline).

On 21-24 March 2013, The University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, is hosting a 5-day “Architectural Elective Affinities Conference”, themed on the subject of “architectural elective affinities”, which they defined as a “complex borrowing of the Weberian concept of elective affinities, namely the: attractions, interactions and similarities between individuals or disciplines and fields of research—used as a tool for grasping the development of architectural forms in the perspective of specific spatio-temporal structures.” The synopsis of the conference seems to be the following:

“The elective affinities operative between architectural history and other disciplines- such as literature, history, sociology, anthropology, arts, including the photography and the cinema - have been lengthily debated in the past years. The conference intends particularly to identify these affinities, looking from inside the discipline of architecture.”

The conference seems to be digging around in the area of architectural thermodynamics; to some extent.

1. Pratt-Smith, Stella. (2011). “Literature and Chemistry: Elective Affinities” (call for papers) (program) (abstracts), The British Society for Literature and Science, Interdisciplinary conference organized by the research group Literature and Science, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, The University of Bergen 27-28 Oct.
2. Pedersen, Frode H. (2011). “Demonic Affinities: On Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften” (abstracts), Literature and Chemistry: Elective Affinities Conference, Bergen University, Oct 27-28.

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